Raymond Briggs, author of the graphic novel Ethel and Ernest is based on, starts the movie by describing the story as ‘nothing special’. But the funny thing is, that’s exactly why its special.
Ethel and Ernest (2016) is a hand-drawn animated historical dramedy written and directed by Roger Mainwood. It follows the courtship and life of Briggs’ parents, Ethel (Brenda Blethyn) and Ernest (Jim Broadbent), two middle-class Londoners who fall in love and live through from the late 20s to early 70s amongst all the technological and historical events of times.
This is as British and quaint as a film can get. Animated to appear like a classic children’s book come to life, it captures the style of the original graphic novel perfectly, even if the animation is a little rough around the edges. The art style heavily alluding to illustrations found in stories in like Where the Wild Things Are and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt to effectively embody everyone’s nostalgic memories of getting read a story before bedtime during their youth. Its hard not to fall into that nostalgic bliss, even while the movie is showing its constraints at times.
The animation also acts as a curious contrast to the tone of the film. This movie is sweeter than a candy cane dipped in cinnamon and honey – in fact its almost too sweet. Considering the harsh realities of the early 20th century that this film deals with, there’s a real imbalance between the seriousness of the time and niceties of life, which initially made me think Mainwood is intentionally making a romanticized, child-friendly version of this story. So when the plot does go to those dark places, it frankly left me confused. The movie sadly never decides whether its for kids or adults, and instead exists in a strange middle ground that alienates parents with its painfully overdone sweetness and horrifies kids with considerable innuendo and the harsh realities of life.
But even for that criticism, the film never becomes anything less than completely engaging. Sure its mundane, but Mainwood does a stellar job finding the interesting and entertaining in even the most dull tasks. While there’s plenty that the film glosses over, because no movie is long enough to explain two people’s lives in intricate detail, the steady pacing and broad strokes of the narrative are so well done that its hard not to feel that you’ve enjoyed the complete story in just 94 minutes.
Even with my criticisms, its hard for this film not to feel like a warm hug from a loved one. Painfully sweet at times to be sure, but also incredibly touching, endearing and oh-so British. It may be a mundane story but that’s what makes it so great – seeing this ordinary snapshot of life presented with this much care and beauty has Ethel and Ernest proving that the most insignificant of stories can also be the most important.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended
Kids: Not Recommended